Beer to go is the silver lining as Utah’s newest brewery takes wing during a pandemic

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grid City Beer Works on 2100 South in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, July 8, 2020.

They had more than 6,000 gallons of fresh-brewed beer and no one to drink it.

Instead of pulling a pint of creamy ale or hoppy pilsner from the specialty taps in mid-March — on what was supposed to be opening week — the three co-owners of Salt Lake City’s Grid City Beer Works were boarding up windows and posting a “closed until further notice” sign on the door.

The uncertainty of the coronavirus shutdown was surreal, Drew Reynolds said.

“We had just put ourselves out on a limb to bring this thing — this big thing — to life,” he said, “and now we’re sitting in a gorgeous remodeled building, saying, ‘I don’t think it’s safe to open.‘”

The brewery may have been closed, but the beer in the tanks didn’t go to waste.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grid City Beer Works on 2100 South in Salt lake City, Wednesday, July 8, 2020.

In a do-or-die business shift, Reynolds and co-owners Justin Belliveau and brewer Jeremy Gross took the money that had been set aside for a rooftop deck and bought a manual canning machine.

Grid City’s original business plan always was to sell beer on tap to customers sitting inside the brewery, Belliveau said. “Canning and distribution was three to five years down the line.”

But to pay the bills — and the staff — they now needed to package their product and sell it through the brewery’s on-site store or some other retail channel.

And they had to do it quickly.

In four weeks, the three were able to buy and ship aluminum cans — which have been in short supply during the pandemic — to the brewery. They created a label and got it approved by the proper government agencies.

By mid-April, with canned beer in place, they celebrated their “Not So Ideal But Better Than Nothing Grand Opening” by selling food and beer to go from the new brewery at 333 W. 2100 South. (The event was caught on film and entered in The Salt Lake Tribune’s Quarantine Film Festival.)

They also signed a contract with Salt Lake City Whole Foods to sell the canned beer.

Through social media and the Utah brewing community, they persuaded consumers — who had never heard of the state’s 34th brewery, let alone tasted its beer — to buy it.

The pivot carried them through to June 5, when Grid City was able to open for sit-down service. The brewery, with its concrete floor, wood beams and U-shaped bar, normally fits 160 people, but the seating has been scaled back to about 70 to provide proper distancing for patrons. It currently is operating on limited hours, opening at 4 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday and at noon on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

There are no walls or glass separating the dining area from the brewery, giving patrons a good view when the 10-barrel brewing system — which can produce two batches or up 620 gallons of beer a day — is in action.

In addition to serving three types of ales, Gross has two pilsners and two seltzers on tap. All are 5% alcohol by volume. There’s also a higher-alcohol IPA available in a can.

Grid City also may be Utah’s only bar/brewery where the base menu is vegan and carnivores are “allowed” to substitute beef, chicken or blackened catfish for the seitan in their rice bowls and sandwiches.

The number three comes up often in conversation — from the number of owners to the numerals in the address. Even the beer comes in three iterations: the traditional way with carbon dioxide carbonation; infused with nitrogen, or “nitro,” which gives it a rich, creamy head; and cask conditioned, a tradition that dates back centuries to Great Britain, where the carbonation comes naturally through extra fermentation.

Flights of — you guessed it — three are a good way to sample the brews, said Gross, who previously worked for Bohemian and Uinta breweries and High West Distillery. Order one ale in the three variations, or try three cask or nitro beers.

The trifectas continue with the brewery’s motto: taste, balance, finish. That evolved while the co-owners were gathered in a basement or garage talking about what creates the best beer flavors and nuances.

Much like beer, each of the co-owners brings a different strength to the Grid City team.

Belliveau, an attorney with a Master of Business Administration, worked six years for the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency — the last seven months as its leader — before leaving in 2016 to launch the brewery.

During his tenure, he was instrumental in getting the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater on Main Street off the ground — namely by soliciting millions in private donations for the project.

His passion for real estate and development persuaded the team to remodel the old Tile for Less building, rather than pay for new construction. His background also was the force behind the brewery name — a nod to the way Salt Lake City founders named and numbered the city streets on a grid.

Belliveau jokes that he may still have the security of a government job if Reynolds — a well-traveled business owner and beer lover — hadn’t become his next-door neighbor eight years ago.

Reynolds lived in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Arizona and New York before settling in Utah. Through his business and personal travels, he estimates he’s consumed a pint in hundreds of breweries.

When Reynolds met Gross six years ago, he was impressed by his home-brewed beer and his knowledge of the science behind making it.

The circle was complete when Gross met Belliveau, and the two recognized each other from their early days working in Park City restaurants.

Launching during a pandemic and operating under the tight health restrictions make the future of Utah’s newest brewery feel tentative. They may start a crowdsourcing campaign to help pay for the rooftop deck, which would likely bring in more customers during COVID-19.

If that doesn’t pan out, they’ve always got the silver lining: canned beer to go.